Inspired by his late father's antique pistol, author, urbanite, firearm novice (and skeptic) Eli Gottlieb traveled through Colorado to figure out why guns still hold such fascination.
I had to wonder: These solid, law-abiding citizens, in their homes and apartments and ranches—what did they actually do with their gazillions of American guns? Hunting is on the wane—the percentage of American hunters has dropped by more than a third since 1975—and a large number of the guns owned in America have little to do with hunting sports, anyway. Target shooting has become more difficult due to the scarcity of ranges. Self-defense is a strong point, of course. And gun homicides have kept pace with the boom in crime that began with the racially stoked "long, hot summers" of the 1960s, plateaued and dropped, and recently has risen again. But here's another statistic to ponder: A significant percentage of guns are used to commit suicide. Older white men are the most vulnerable group. Women try to kill themselves three times more often than men, but men succeed four times more often than women because men—especially white men—own guns.
This still leaves unanswered the more basic question: Why? Beneath the cowboy heritage, why our national obsession with these deadly toys? Yes, guns are often beautifully crafted objects; I had come to a new appreciation of that. But my father's pistol had felt dangerous and somewhat clumsy, and hadn't been an especially pleasant thing to shoot, and my friend Patrick's .45 caliber cannon had simply frightened me. What was it about this passionate, enduring American hobby that was actually fun?
To answer that question, I finally got around to calling a man named Ron (not his real name). I called Ron because I'd been told he was a high priest of guns, a guru of high-performance ballistics, and that if anyone could give me a satisfying response to the question of how to have fun with guns, it was him. Not long after my call, Ron obligingly took me along for a ride in his Mercedes G-Class to that sanctum sanctorum of guns in the Front Range, the Boulder Rifle Club.
Over preceding days, I'd already learned a lot about my host. I'd learned that shooting for him is "a form of high-velocity golf," meditative and calming. I'd learned that he makes what he calls "roll-your-own ammo," assembling it in his pristine basement; that he doesn't go shooting, per se, but uses the range for "load development," testing various combinations of powders and casings for maximum accuracy; that his rifles have their barrels removed upon purchase and sent to a top-flight gunsmith located, believe it or not, in Rifle, Colorado, to be rebarrelled, remachined, trued up, and reassembled.
I'm personally familiar with this type of commercial gigantism and refinement. As a boy, I found it important to have the very best, most esoteric bike parts, stereo components, and camera equipment, and believed this disembodied desire to be perfectly natural. I've since realized it was a sign of deep emotional estrangement.
But Ron isn't estranged. Hell no! Ron seems like one of the happiest men I know. Ron has hair down to his ass, little round glasses, and looks somewhat like a scholarly Duane Allman. Because of that, people tend to assume that Ron is a reformed rock and roller, but Ron is anything but. Ron is a specialized category unto himself, parking his car while talking a mile a minute about "human design," the pursuit of excellence in life, divination, evolution, and biology, and then removing from the backseat three wickedly beautiful rifles made by Sako, in Finland, and considered among the best of their kind. Along with these were several boxes of hand-assembled ammo whose contents—type of powder, casing, and bullet—he'd noted on the side in a precise script.
We were shooting outdoors, so we attached the targets to wooden posts at the far end of a narrow field and then drove a hundred yards back to the shooting booth, which was a table on which Ron mounted a felt-lined shooting stand. He lowered the rifle into the stand carefully, chattering away in a drawl whose origins I couldn't quite place.